What Makes an Open Lab 'Open'?

As public universities divert resources into new kinds of learning spaces, they should promote collaborative and mutually enriching connections among students and institutions, write Robin DeRosa and Dan Blickensderfer.

May 2, 2017

At their best, our public institutions of higher education have always been public laboratories: sandbox-like spaces that support failure, learning and discovery. As the ideas and ethos of the maker movement become more mainstream, communities and institutions are investing in physical maker spaces. Older-style computer clusters in colleges and universities are being updated into “open labs,” combining the functionality of a basic computer lab with newer high-tech tools and toys. These new physical spaces are infused with the sandbox ethos: they promise to transform students into makers, explorers, risk takers and innovators.

But what makes an open lab open? As public colleges and universities invest precious tuition dollars in these spaces, we wonder if the case for open labs as hubs of innovation has been overstated. While they may be effective marketing tools, helpful on a campus tour, open labs should also let us enhance the quality of education for students, especially at the undergraduate level. If public institutions are going to divert key resources into building and equipping these spaces, they should be guided by their public mission and use these physical spaces to open collaborative and mutually enriching connections among students, the university and the various publics that our universities serve.

As advocates for Open Education, we believe deeply that working open can have important benefits for learners and for the wider community outside of the academy, and we don’t want this movement to be devalued by using the word “open” carelessly in higher education contexts. We want to focus the lens of the open education movement to help leverage administrative support for a vision of open labs that truly enriches the learning landscape. Six key principles could frame the open ethos of an open lab, adapted from the kinds of definitions and philosophies that underscore open education.

Open as in open-ended: generating learner-driven outcomes that evolve with the work. In most university courses, learning outcomes are generated -- often by departmental committee -- well in advance of the course’s start date. What this means is that at least symbolically -- and in many cases practically -- all acceptable end points are prescribed before a single student has entered the room. This has the negative consequence of leaving out of the curriculum the value that students and faculty members generate. It fails to engage students as collaborators and contributors of knowledge and to take advantage of resources that could emerge and be made part of the course to provide broader context, fresh analysis and new goals.

In any open lab environment, we should encourage all participants to have a hand in crafting the expected and desired outcomes, and then allow the contributions of the participants to shift and revise those outcomes as the work develops. In many cases, open lab experiences offer opportunities for alternative credit-generating experiences for students, and we, along with our students, should co-develop flexible, open-ended outcomes for our open labs.

Open as in open to the public: using the principles of connected learning to put the academy in conversation with a wider community. Connected learning takes as its starting point the idea that education is a dialogic process, enhanced by networked communication. The flow here is in multiple directions across networks: students contribute work to the knowledge commons; participants in the commons, whether scholars or students from other institutions or stakeholders from outside the academy, can revise and critique that work. It also supports the more traditional flow where scholars and the public can offer ideas that our students can absorb, critique, remix and the like.

An open lab should integrate the critical digital literacy skills students need to participate in these networked communities. Students should build personal learning networks, publish their work to the open web and learn about digital citizenship and about the rewards and challenges of working in public as they undertake open lab projects.

Open as in open access: using open licenses to share data, research, products and processes with the world. Traditionally, the university has been a proprietary knowledge-creation zone focused -- often for good reason -- on protecting its intellectual property. But as researchers and teachers, we have an obligation to share our work. Sharing can benefit students who are getting gouged on textbook prices. Sharing also benefits college libraries by allowing them to recover funds spent on the skyrocketing costs of databases and subscriptions as more journals convert to open access. And it benefits a public that is often being required to support university research with tax dollars yet buy back access to the results because they are published in closed, paywalled journals. Some closed journals seek to further monopolize the research and publishing process for their own enrichment with actions like patenting the online peer-reviewed research process.

Open labs should make open licensing a priority and focus on being active advocates for the open ecosystem, including the use and support of: open-source software, open data, open educational resources and open-access publishing models. For example, an open lab project team might openly license and publish on GitHub the source code and documentation for their software research project.

Open as in open 24-7: rethinking delivery systems for education. No lab -- open or otherwise -- needs to be physically open all the time in order to thrive. But seat time measures and credit counting have limited many traditional universities’ ability to offer different kinds of learning experiences. Faculty members who have to teach a certain number of credits, students who have to sit in chairs a certain number of hours and reductive either/or online vs. face-to-face characterizations of courses end up creating structures into which all learning must fit.

The open lab should offer structural flexibility to faculty members and students who have ideas about how to learn and work that may not conform to the traditional structures that the institution currently enables. That may include non- and alternative-credit generating experiences, inventive workarounds for block schedules, and more hybridized schedules that are driven by the needs of the participants and projects. An open lab has a distinct opportunity to support the tenets of Project-Based Learning by providing a physical third space and tool set with which to build learning experiences not bound by seat time or semesters.

Open as in open for business: building a sustainable economic system for education. Open labs can provide a point of partnership and collaboration among universities, their students and faculty members, and corporations and industry. As economic pressures on universities mount, such partnerships can provide additional revenue for the institution and opportunities for students.

But for public universities in particular, it is imperative that corporate interest not define the shape of higher education at the expense of students or scholarship. In some emerging models, as colleges struggle to market themselves as relevant to families who desperately need a well-paying job to follow years of expensive tuition bills, we have seen universities set competencies in response to immediate workplace needs -- which, in turn, can help students secure jobs upon graduation for which they have effectively been trained. That can appear to be a win-win, except that it doesn’t necessarily help students prepare to help shape the economic system they are entering, nor does it encourage a curriculum that would prepare them to evolve as the needs of the company evolve. It also guarantees a perpetual source of starting-level employees, which makes retaining employees unprofitable over time.

In other words, as we use open labs to partner with businesses and private donors, we should think about long-term economic sustainability from the perspective of students -- not just that of the institution or partner companies. For public universities, that means thinking about funding and revenues in the context of public support for higher education -- not just in terms of patents and products. It also means thinking about partnerships in the context of the long-range sustainability of public universities and their graduates -- not just short-term job placement. And it means considering how open labs work for the public -- not just how they can plug crisis-level funding gaps for universities or manufacture custom-trained graduates for entry-level jobs. Identifying the benefits of working partnerships between universities and external stakeholders based on the power of the relationship rather than the monetary value of the product will help institutions make the case for continuing, consistent public support for higher education.

Open as in open arms: thinking critically about our own terms, their limits and challenges to working inclusively open. Each of these principles is fraught with promises that open can’t keep. Open labs are typically walled off inside the institutional structures that ironically profess to free them. But this tension is part of what animates open. In our opinion, open provisionally agrees to work within the oppressive structures of institutions in order to refigure those structures into an architecture for the public commons.

That being said, we must work to open a space that is at its core critical of its own promises. We must be willing to do the work of identifying how exclusion, gatekeeping, prejudice and violence close down even the most well-intentioned open spaces. Racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia -- open spaces use a democratizing rhetoric that runs the risk of alienating those people who see such sites of “freedom” as essentially fraudulent. And while working open can drive down some costs for students, 3-D printers and fancy glass-walled rooms with rolling furniture contribute to rising bottom-line tuition costs that further disenfranchise the large number of students who struggle to afford higher education.

Above all else, open labs should work to be honest about how power and privilege operate in institutions of learning and how they are replicated, challenged and sometimes exacerbated by universities’ efforts to innovate. For open labs to be truly welcoming, they need to be open about the limits of their promises and the realities that vulnerable learners in the academy -- and in society -- face today.

Who are the stakeholders who govern decision making around open labs? That is a question fraught with the tensions that surround much higher education “innovation” right now. But to preserve the pedagogical possibility of the word “open,” we should encourage earnest conversations around the mission and methods of these emerging spaces, and integrate those conversations into whatever protocols exist for defining and branding them.

Here are some guiding questions for the collaborative group of faculty members, administrators, students and community advocates or users who represent the stakeholders of open labs:

  • How will the group encourage revision and development of goals as the work emerges?
  • How will the group connect its work to larger relevant scholarly and public conversations outside the room?
  • Is the group familiar with open licensing and actively working to make its work shareable for others to build on?
  • Is the group pressing the institution to adjust or develop institutional structures that support emerging ways of working?
  • Is the group considering how funding sources and revenue streams related to the work can sustain the institutions’ learners in the longer term in a way that supports academic freedom and inquiry?
  • Is the group asking critical questions about the challenges and barriers that threaten the inclusion, safety or well-being of the full range of possible participants in the work?

Does your college or university have open labs? If so, do they engage with any of these questions? What thoughts do you have about the “open” in open lab?


Robin DeRosa is director of interdisciplinary studies at Plymouth State University. Dan Blickensderfer is senior curriculum and assessment developer at College for America, Southern New Hampshire University.

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